Friday 31 January 2014

British floods

Southern England has wettest January since 1910

30 January, 2014

A swathe of England stretching from Devon in the southwest to Kent in the southeast has already experienced twice the average rainfall for the month, figures from the Met Office national weather service showed, with more on the way this weekend.

The army was preparing to deploy to one part of the largely rural county of Somerset to help the residents of villages cut off by the worst flooding there for 20 years.

Southeast and central southern England have had more than twice their average rainfall, with a record 175.2 millimetres (6.9 inches) falling between January 1 and January 28, beating the previous record of 158.2 millimetres for the month set in 1988.

But Britain as a whole has had an unusually sodden January.

The Met Office said 164.6 millimetres of rain had fallen so far in January across the entire country, which was 35 percent above the long-term average.

More heavy rain is forecast from Friday, which would exacerbate the situation in areas already struggling with floods.

The weather has left some areas badly affected by flooding, with 65 square kilometres (25 square miles) of the Somerset Levels underwater for a month.

The government has given the go-ahead for the army to help villages there cut off by the floods and specialist vehicles are being brought in so troops can deliver food, transport residents and deliver sandbags.

The Ministry of Defence is deploying military planners to help the local council and a small number of soldiers arrived on the ground on Thursday.

Military on standby as forecasters warn Somerset to prepare for more flooding
Arrival of troops cheers residents of flooded Somerset Levels, but anger remains over government's response

30 January, 2014

Scores of soldiers, Royal Marines and emergency services personnel will be on standby on Friday as the people of the flooded Somerset Levels brace themselves again for more rain, gales and a tidal surge.

For the first time since the Levels went under water at the start of the month, military engineers and troops were on the ground on Thursday helping civilian staff plan the response to this weekend's predicted storms.

Military vehicles, including Royal Marine amphibious vessels, were made available and two fire service hovercraft were on the way to south-west England. Ten high-volume fire pumps, staffed by crews from as far afield as Merseyside and Cornwall, were parked in a motorway service area in readiness for the next expected phase of the crisis.

There was relief among residents that the army and marines were on the ground – but also continuing anger that it had seemingly taken so long for the government to act on the crisis. "We're grateful that something is being done," said Bryony Sadler, a hairdresser and mother who has endured weeks of flooding in the village of Moorland. "I'm thankful someone seems to be listening at last but it's been such a long time coming. It's been total mismanagement so far."

Mark Corthine, a retired army major, is facing months of disruption after his farmhouse in nearby Fordgate was inundated with water and sewage. He said he was pleased the "boys" were in place. "But in reality it's come two weeks too late. I'm sorry it's taken a disaster for the Environment Agency and government to take notice of what is happening here."

Corthine said he also feared for what could happen at the weekend with up to 20mm of rain predicted to sweep into Somerset, coinciding nastily with winds of up to 60mph and high tides on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. "I'm worried that water could come pouring in and more homes be flooded," he said.

Nigel Smith, a resident of Muchelney, which has been cut off by floodwater, stepped off the taxi boat operated by the fire brigade between the village and the town of Langport, and said the level of response was now "terrific" – though he suggested the military presence was more political than practical. "Sending the army in is largely a political statement to satisfy people's justifiable complaints," he said.

Certainly, the military's approach on Thursday was softly-softly rather than gung-ho. They were spotted in Land Rovers travelling around the Levels on what the Ministry of Defence described as "recces".

Two army engineers, currently based with 40 Commando, one of the UK's elite fighting units, surveyed the flooding at Burrowbridge on the banks of the River Parrett, where Welsh firefighters were helping their Somerset colleagues pump water out of fields and properties.

The pair then climbed – rapidly – up Burrow Mump, an earthwork that has been used by the military as a look-out point and base since at least the 9th century, to get a bird's eye look at the flooded Levels. From there they drove to the edge of the floodwater surrounding Muchelney – but did not get their feet wet – before quick-marching back to their vehicle and away.

Later, for the first time in the crisis, the county's strategic co-ordinating group held a press conference in Taunton. Police chief superintendent Caroline Peters said there was "real concern" about what could happen on the Levels over the weekend. She said she was happy that soldiers and marines were ready to spring into action.

Pat Flaherty, the deputy chief executive of the county council, said it was "understandable" that residents felt angry and isolated. But he welcomed David Cameron's promise that the rivers would be dredged when it was safe to do so. A key complaint from residents is that over the past 20 years the Environment Agency has refused to clear the rivers of silt, making it harder to clear the Levels of floodwater.

There was no sign of the Environment Agency – which argues that dredging would not have stopped the floods – at the press conference. By the time darkness fell, it had issued almost 200 flood warnings and alerts for large swaths of England and Wales including Somerset.

The speakers at the press conference made it clear that residents of the Levels, were resilient. Sue Crocker, who berated the government when the environment secretary Owen Paterson visited earlier this week, said she and her neighbours were preparing for a party as the next batch of weather built. "It's going to be a high tide party," she said. "We're going to watch the water and see if it spills over. It could turn into a swimming party."

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